Q&A: Overview of the Book of Lamentations

Overview of the Book of Lamentations

Question

Overview of the Book of Lamentations

Answer

Overview of the Book of Lamentations

Author: The author is unknown, but traditionally attributed to the prophet Jeremiah.

Purpose:

To express and to guide others in expressing laments over the terrible conditions brought on Jerusalem and God's people by the Babylonians.

Date: c. 586-516 B.C.

Key Truths:

  • Judah and Jerusalem deserved the divine judgment they had received.
  • The pain of destruction and exile was greater than the people could bear without the outlet of lament.
  • The only hope for deliverance from the suffering of exile was to call on God to be compassionate.

Author:

Lamentations is traditionally attributed to the prophet Jeremiah. This has been true at least since the third century B.C., as evidenced by the fact that the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament) contains a note about the prophet's authorship of the book as a heading before the first verse. The idea that Jeremiah was the author may have been encouraged by 2 Chronicles 35:25, which relates that the prophet composed laments for King Josiah. There is no direct evidence in Lamentations itself that Jeremiah was its author, although there are distinct echoes of Jeremiah's style and expressions in the book, especially in chapter 3 (e.g., Lam. 3:48-51; cf. Jer. 14:17). However, since Lamentations consists of five poems that vary somewhat in style and appear sometimes to be spoken by an individual (Lam. 3:1-66) and sometimes by the community (Lam. 5:1-22), the book may have been compiled from various sources rather than composed by a single author.

Time and Place of Writing:

The setting of Lamentations is clearly Judah, particularly Jerusalem. The contents of the book, especially the lament concerning the loss of Judah's king (Lam. 2:2, 9), places it after the fall of the Kingdom of Judah to the Babylonians in 586 B.C. and before the rebuilding of the Temple c. 516 B.C. This setting during the period of the Babylonian exile makes Lamentations a fitting sequel to the book of Jeremiah; Jeremiah foretold the fall of Jerusalem, while the writer of Lamentations expressed the pain endured in the fulfillment of that prophecy.

Purpose and Distinctives:

The purpose of Lamentations was fulfilled in its very execution and then in its adoption by others as a means of coming to terms with the destruction of Zion. It presents three harmonious perspectives on the wrath God poured out against Judah through the Babylonians.

First, the book affirms that the destruction and exile were just consequences for sin. The prophets had warned Judah repeatedly that judgment would come if the people continued to violate God's covenant with them. Long before Jeremiah Amos spoke of a day of the Lord against his people (Amos 5:18, and that day had come, see Lam. 1:12). The prophets had drawn on the principles of the covenant, expressed most forcefully in Deuteronomy, which made an emphatic connection between the people's faithfulness to the Lord and their continuance in the land. The book's purpose, in part, was to justify God's punishment of Judah and to vindicate the prophets who had announced the judgment beforehand.

Second, expressed strong emotional resistance to the judgment on Judah. Was God's punishment of his people excessive (Lam. 2:20-22)? Could it be right for him to behave as the enemy of his own people (Lam. 2:4ff.)? These honest expressions made the book powerful in its day and make it powerful still, when a sense of anguish and forsakenness is once again pervasive.

Third, the book affirms that the Lord is still a God of mercy and faithfulness (see Lam. 3:22-36). Lamentations expresses sincere faith that the exile will end. It also expresses hope that there will be a satisfaction for Judah's guilt and a judgment on her enemies for their crimes against her. This hope reflects an understanding of the sovereignty of God over all the nations, a sovereignty that ensured the fulfillment of all his covenant promises (see Lam. 3:37-39).

The five chapters of Lamentations comprise five distinct poems. These poems are laments, which are also present in other books of the Old Testament, principally the Psalms (see "Introduction to Psalms: Structure: Genres: 2. Laments"). Laments (both of the community and of the individual) have certain typical characteristics: complaint about adversity, confession of trust, appeal for deliverance, and confidence in God's response - often including the assurance that enemies and persecutors would, in turn, meet his wrath (see, e.g., Psa. 74). Lamentations exhibits these usual characteristics, but it includes some variations as well.

The book shares with other laments a certain poetic style, namely the so-called qinah meter. This poetic rhythm consists of lines in which the first phrase has three points of stress (in the Hebrew) and the second has two.

Lamentations also makes extensive use of the acrostic form. In an acrostic, each successive unit, such as a line or a verse, begins with a consecutive letter of the Hebrew alphabet, which contains 22 letters (e.g., Psa. 34). Lamentations conforms very closely to this pattern in chapters 1, 2 and 4. Chapter 3 varies the pattern. It includes 22 stanzas (there are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet), each with three verses that begin with the same letter. Lamentations 5 is not an acrostic at all, though it is also comprised of 22 verses. In the Old Testament, the acrostic form probably represented the complete expression of a sentiment or theme. The poet's artistic labor, furthermore, was an act of devotion to the Lord. In devotional meditation the acrostic produces a delicate balance between extreme emotion and disciplined restraint.

Christ in Lamentations:

Lamentations points beyond the situation of the exile to Christ in several important ways. In his humiliation, Jesus suffered a type of exile through his substitutionary atonement for God's people. In the days before his own cry of abandonment as part of his redemptive suffering (Matt. 27:46), Jesus spoke his own lament over Jerusalem (Matt. 23:37-39; Luke 13:34-35). Christ's exaltation began the end of the suffering of God's people. He took his throne and will continue to reign, finally overcoming all his enemies. Lamentations also provides followers of Christ with a means of expressing their own laments over the conditions of life for God's people in the present. Although Christ has inaugurated the Kingdom of God and the exaltation of God's people, the church continues to suffer deprivation and exile (1 Pet. 1:2). Lamentations asserts that in a world of pain and injustice God is still good and that he will one day bring all goodness "to those whose hope is in him" (Lam. 3:25).

Notes from the NIV Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, Dr. Richard Pratt, ed. (Zondervan, 2003).

Introduction Material:

Introduction to the Prophetic Books

Copyright:

Copyright, Authors, and Theological Editors of the SORSB

Answer by Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr.

Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr. is Co-Founder and President of Third Millennium Ministries who served as Professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary and has authored numerous books.